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Addiction and the Brain

When a person becomes addicted to a substance, this is not an issue that can be overcome by sheer force of will. Part of the reason for this is because addiction to a substance causes changes to occur in the way the individual's brain works. These changes are severe and can affect all parts of a person's life.

While they can be reversed, the process usually takes time, effort on the part of the addict, and the help of professional addiction treatment. If you believe you are already experiencing issues with addiction, it can help to understand the effect it has on your brain and the ways in which rehab can help.

For assistance finding a rehab today, call us.

What Happens to a Person's Brain When They Take Drugs?

If a person decides to abuse alcohol, illegal or prescription drugs, or any other type of mind-altering substance, their brain will be affected by it. The way that the brain is affected varies from drug to drug. For example, cocaine stimulates the brain while heroin causes pain relief and relaxation. However, there are a number of actions that occur when almost any substance of this type is taken.

If a person decides to abuse alcohol, illegal or prescription drugs, or any other type of mind-altering substance, their brain will be affected by it. The way that the brain is affected varies from drug to drug. For example, cocaine stimulates the brain while heroin causes pain relief and relaxation. However, there are a number of actions that occur when almost any substance of this type is taken.

  • The drug itself mimics the natural chemical messengers of the brain.
  • The drug then disrupts the normal way the brain sends and receives these messengers, causing it to act differently than it should.
  • After an individual takes the drug for a long period of time, the brain becomes accustomed to it and craves the feeling the substance causes, leading to compulsive use and other dangerous actions on the part of the individual.

According to the National Library of Medicine, “Addiction is now understood to be a brain disease because scientific research has shown that alcohol and other drugs can change brain structure and function.” From the very start, drugs work to change the way the brain operates and to create abnormal messages that make the brain––and the individual––want to abuse it again. Essentially, mind-altering substances hijack the brain and cause the act of using more to be the only action the brain will care about.

How Do Drugs Mimic Chemical Messengers of the Brain?

Different drugs do this in different ways. For example, drugs like heroin and marijuana have structures that, to the brain, are indistinguishable from the normal neurotransmitters that tell the brain when to feel certain things. These drugs fool the brain into sending out certain messages because they work like neurotransmitters. Drugs like cocaine and methamphetamine actually cause the nerve cells in the brain to release dopamine (and other neurotransmitters) in unnecessarily large amounts, causing the brain to react to these high levels of chemical messengers and confusing it.

Drugs of abuse, in one way or another, work to over-stimulate the individual's limbic system or reward pathway of the brain by producing or causing the release of these high levels of neurotransmitters. Once the drug has done this, the brain will link the action of abusing drugs with a positive feeling. Our brains are programmed to make us repeat the things that make us feel good, but usually, these are things that are good for us as well (such as drinking water, sleeping, eating, etc.). When drugs create these messengers from neurotransmitters that either shouldn't exist or are being released at a very high volume, it tricks the brain into thinking that it should repeat an activity that actually isn't good for us.

Why Don't We Become Addicted to Other Things?

A person won't become addicted to sleeping, drinking water, etc. because the amount of neurotransmitters that are released upon these actions are much smaller than those associated with drug abuse. When a person abuses a drug, it either mimics a large amount of these positive messengers or releases a surplus of them. The brain has no defense against this, and so it actually allows the drug to take control over the mind and its actions as it implores us to use more.

How Does Average Drug Abuse Become an Addiction?

Many people abuse drugs once or twice without it becoming an addiction. But there are a number of reasons why substance abuse can lead to compulsive use––and why the individual who encounters this problem will require medical help.

  • Some drugs are much more potent than others. A person could abuse heroin or crack cocaine only once and, because of the way it is administered and the intensity of its effects, addiction could occur on the first use. However, because it still feels good to use less potent drugs, voluntary use can become compulsive quickly as well.
  • Certain factors put some individuals more at risk of addiction than others. These factors are biological, environmental, and developmental in nature. Still, even if you do not have any of these factors associated with your life or experiences, you can become an addict.
  • Many people deny the possibility that they may be addicted––or abusing drugs at a dangerous degree––until they experience an extremely dangerous or earth-shattering event. And even then in many cases, it can be hard for someone to accept that they need help. During the time where an individual might be in denial, an addiction can worsen and become more and more serious.

Most importantly, the way substances of abuse affect the reward pathway causes changes to occur little by little. A person may at first just want to use the drug again to feel its effects once more, but then, they will start to experience other issues that will lead to more and more abuse and, eventually, addiction.

  • Tolerance: Drugs of abuse cause tolerance in most cases as individuals use them more and more. If you begin to notice the same amount of the drug that you used to use no longer causes the same effects, you are experiencing tolerance. In order to combat it, many people use more of the drug, leading them to become more addicted to, tolerant of, and dependent on the substance.
  • Dependence: When an individual becomes dependent on a substance, it means they feel like they cannot function without it. They will likely use it every day, even when they are alone, and they will make excuses to use it as often as possible.
  • Withdrawal: The symptoms of withdrawal occur because a person is dependent on a drug. If they suddenly stop using it, they will experience painful, uncomfortable, and even dangerous symptoms. This can lead a person to continue abusing a drug even if they no longer receive the effects they want from it.
  • Cravings: Cravings make it hard to refuse the urge to take the drug. A person may want to use the substance so much that they will not be able to think straight. This can often lead to compulsive drug seeking, where the individual seeks out the substance without being able to stop themselves.

What Other Changes Can Addiction Make to the Brain?

An addiction can actually bring out the symptoms of a latent mental disorder or even cause depression, anxiety, and other serious, psychological issues. Some substances, like methamphetamine, cocaine, and other stimulants, can even create a drug-induced psychosis that causes an individual to mimic the symptoms of schizophrenia, including hallucinations, violent behavior, self-absorption, and paranoia.

Addiction causes a person to only be able to think about the drug and their ability to use it. Many addicts hurt the ones they love and even experience problems in their jobs, school, relationships, and every other aspect of their lives. Even when you can see that your addiction is hurting others––and hurting you––it can be incredibly difficult to stop on your own because of the extreme changes the drug will have caused to the way your brain works.

It’s important to find the right treatment program and support to recover from addiction. We can help you, call us.

Can the Changes Addiction Makes to the Brain Be Reversed?

Usually, yes. Over time and with the help of professional rehab, you can change the way your addiction affects you and reverse many of the changes it has made to your brain. Below are some of the most common treatment options used in rehab to create these effects.

  • Medication: Medication is used often to reestablish the way the brain used to function and to allow individuals to focus on the rest of their treatment. It can be difficult to have the level of focus and presence required for recovery and treatment when you are going through withdrawal, cravings, and many of the other issues that occur after quitting your drug abuse. This is why medication can be helpful in allowing you to concentrate on your therapeutic treatments and in stabilizing you during your recovery so that you may begin to heal.
  • Behavioral therapies: These programs can help you change the way you think about your addiction and allow you to learn better, more beneficial ways to cope with triggers and cravings, avoid relapse, and practice better life skills. Contingency management, family therapy, group therapy, and cognitive-behavioral therapy are some of the most commonly used therapeutic options. In addition, CBT is often used to treat those with comorbid conditions who require help for both a mental illness and an addiction.
  • Neurofeedback therapy: Also called electroencephalogram biofeedback therapy, neurofeedback treatment turns abnormal frequencies in the brain into normal frequencies. A person is hooked up to a device that reads their involuntary reactions (like heart rate, blood pressure, temperature, etc.). During this treatment, a medical professional will help the individual learn to control these usually spontaneous responses in order to have more control over the brain and its activities. While this is not yet an officially sanctioned treatment option for addiction, it has made some promising strides in recent years and has been found to be especially effective in retraining the brain after addiction.

In some cases, there are certain effects that drug abuse and addiction can cause to the brain that may never be fully reversed. For instance, a person may experience cravings for cocaine less and less with the help of treatment, but these cravings can still hit suddenly months or even years after the individual abused the drug for the last time. However, amazing changes can be made with rehab treatment, and cravings, triggers, psychological side effects, and other issues associated with addiction can all be treated through these programs.

Especially if you are experiencing certain changes in the way your brain responds to your current drug abuse, it is important to attend treatment as soon as possible in order to recover from your addiction, reverse these changes, and prevent any others from taking hold. We can help you get started today; give us a call.

Attend Addiction Treatment Today

If you have been struggling with addiction, you can begin your recovery by calling us today. We will help you find a rehab program in the area of your choice that caters to your needs. In addition, we would be happy to answer any questions you may have about drug abuse and addiction and the ways in which these conditions can change your brain functions. You deserve to begin your recovery today; it is never too early to start treatment and to create the life you want. Call us today and let us help you make a change.

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